Steve Orlen


What was wrong with me that I couldn't sit still
The way the rest of them almost could?
Couldn't contain myself; couldn't hold a thought
About the Emperor Claudius of Rome, or Mozart,
Or the simple abridged anatomy of the birds
Soaring over the schoolyard; couldn't hold onto the numbers,
What they indicated without their indicators,
Numbers that appeared on the chalk board
And disappeared as quickly as the birds themselves;
Couldn't string one thought together with another thought
So the world would make the kind of temporary sense
Children begin to compose a world of.
I whispered constantly, sometimes to myself,
Passed silly notes to my neighbors
Who sat so close across the aisle
You could smell their morning breaths,
All of us lifers, imprisoned in our little desks
Practicing for what we must have thought would be
A lifetime of enforced composure. I ground my teeth,
Picked my nose until it bled, cracked my knuckles,
Played with words in my head so they became as real
As the toy soldiers I arranged and re-arranged on the rug;
Twitched, jiggled my knees, shifted positions in my seat
In a sort of strut, a military march in place;
Stretched my neck until it felt as though I might
Fly out of my body towards my blurred reflection
In the shut windows like the birds did,
Retracting at the last second; and to that camp song,
The shinbone's connected to the ankle bone, [italics]
I learned the child's sixth grade irritating art
Of cracking each joint in my body
In a staccato interrupted chord, playing myself
Like a piano or a set of conga drums,
And I thought, Here's a talent for The Ed Sullivan Show.
Until the girls tittered, the boys mimed that silent roar
That signals both appreciation for
And condescension to the wierd, and the teacher,
A gentle, patient, understanding man, would look up
From the papers on his desk at this one-man band,
This boy dancing in place like a dervish,
And knit his brow and shake his head at me,
And mouth, Settle down! Then I would explode
Out of my seat and rush
Down the aisle to the big window in the back
And sharpen my pencil until there was no pencil left,
And, glaring out across the lawn, compose myself
By trying, with all my might, to watch the grass grow
And force the iris from its edging bed.
Until the spasms rhythming my body
Would stop, and the only song was faint bird song,
And its background, the comforting atonal susurrations
Of cotton trousers, cotton dresses,
And my body and the world
Were returned to me for at least a while.
So it was with my father; so it is with my son.

Steve Orlen was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1942. Graduated from UMass in 1964,then from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1967. He has been teaching in the cw program at the University of Arizona in Tucson since 1967, and in the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson College since 1986. He is a co-editor of Poetrybay.


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